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Water, Sanitation Gain Traction as Basic Human Rights

Thalif Deen

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"This landmark decision has the potential to change the lives of billions of human beings who still lack access to water and sanitation," claimed Catarina de Albuquerque, a U.N. independent expert on human rights obligations.

What this means, Albuquerque explained, is that the right to water and sanitation is equal to all other human rights - and is therefore legally binding and enforceable in existing human rights treaties.

The consensus resolution was a logical follow-up to a key General Assembly resolution adopted last July which also - for the first time - recognised water and sanitation as basic human rights.

But in reality water and sanitation have remained two of the most neglected sub-texts of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which came under scrutiny at the MDG summit here last month.

At this much-ballyhooed summit, world leaders adopted a plan of action - officially called the ‘outcome document’ - which recognised the obstacles thwarting the MDGs and offered pledges and commitments to reach the defined goals by the targeted date: 2015.

The primary goals and sub-goals include a reduction by 50 percent the proportion of people living in extreme poverty and hunger, the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, the elimination of gender inequality, and the reduction by half the proportion of people without access to water and sanitation.

Currently, over 800-900 million people have no access to safe drinking water and over 2.6 billion people are living without adequate sanitation.

While most developing nations have made limited progress in providing clean water, the targets for sanitation remain virtually unreachable.

"If current trends continue unchanged, the international community will miss the 2015 sanitation MDG target by almost one billion people," warns U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro.

In an interview with IPS, Jon Lane, executive director of the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), said he sees visible signs of progress since 1.3 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation since 1990.

Still, he says, "the pace is too slow to allow the world to meet the MDG target on sanitation."

"There are many reasons for this slow pace," Lane said, "but the main one is that political leaders in developed and developing countries have not grasped the fundamental role that good sanitation plays for people’s health, dignity, economic well-being and local environment."

Success with sanitation would bring a huge swag of benefits, plus it would support the achievement of other MDG targets on child and maternal mortality, education, and poverty reduction, among others, he added.

Jamie Bartram, director of the Water Institute at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, told IPS the MDG targets for water and sanitation are "wildly under-ambitious".

The idea that anything less than water and sanitation in every home is a serious target in today’s world is astonishing and binds millions in poverty, he pointed out.

"Today’s MDG targets focus on water and sanitation for households. But these essential needs are required elsewhere too - in schools, workplaces and markets for example," said Bartram.

The idea that it is possible to deliver effective health care services without reliable and safe water and sanitation makes no sense, but yet it is the reality of many health facilities.

"It is often said that sanitation lags water. Yet, if we use as simple benchmarks their availability at home, then we see that water lags sanitation and both are available for only around half of humankind," Bartram noted.

He also said that water and sanitation offer rare opportunities to make progress across the MDG agenda, yet have not attracted the attention they deserve.

Asked if the outcome document adopted by the U.N. summit last week offers any hope, Lane, of the WSSCC, told IPS the document makes note of sanitation 17 times. "This is good, and an improvement over the past." Remember, sanitation was not originally an MDG target, he said.

However, it remains to be seen whether the outcome document as a whole is concrete enough to accelerate progress so that the target is reached.

What’s missing, Lane pointed out, is a reference to hygiene practices: hand washing with soap can save one million lives per year - mostly children in developing countries.

Fortunately, there is momentum in the sector and sanitation’s profile is rising, thanks in part to new initiatives like the Global Sanitation Fund operated by WSSCC and the new Sanitation and Water for All initiative, a multi-stakeholder network reaching out directly to finance ministers, among others.

Pointing out existing deficiencies, Bartram told IPS there is still far too much focus on building new systems, sources and supplies, and too little on keeping them working.

"The allure of opening a new facility far outweighs the prosaic task of keeping them working, but we see a large proportion of all hand pumps [for example] out of action at any one time, and investing in sustaining systems offers more bang for the buck."

He said maintaining and extending effective water supply is challenged by other demands for water for agriculture, and by other threats, such as climate change.

"It is imperative that after 2015, water and sanitation are part of the international development agenda not as part of environmental protection but as key motors for health and development in their own right," said Bartram.

The associated targets need to focus on services that contribute to household health and economy. "We need to seize the opportunity of early adaptation to improve performance and not to await the need to respond to widespread failure," he said.

"We could prevent around 10 percent of the burden of disease worldwide simply by managing water sanitation and hygiene to achievable and recognised good practices."

Water and sanitation services can be costly and need financing, he noted. But the world’s poor often pay more in absolute terms for these basic needs. Most expenditure on these needs is not by donors and governments but by ordinary households.

He said solutions that respond to the real needs of households and are affordable are key components of a sustainable future.